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Mona Spector, Ph.D.

Staff Molecular Geneticist

Understanding the basic principles of life always fascinated me. And being able to understand the normal inner workings of a cell allows one to understand how sometimes these processes go awry, resulting in disease. So, pursuing a career in scientific biomedical research was a path I knew early on I wanted to take. After earning a B.S. in Biology from Brooklyn College, I continued my education at Cornell University Medical School/Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and earned my Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics in 1994 studying the underlying principles of cell cycle control. I did a post-doctoral fellowship in Dr. Michael Hengartner's lab at CSHL continuing my studies on understanding the genetic causes of cancer. His lab was filled with the aura of a Nobel Prize winner – Dr. Barbara McClintock – as that lab space in the Demerec building had previously been hers. We even used her oil lamps to "pick" the nematode C. elegans. It was in Dr. Hengartner's lab that I followed my intuition, and made a key discovery in the field of programmed cell death that was published in the journal Nature. This is the moment scientists live for – making new discoveries. I can think of no better way to spend 18 hours a day, every day, than doing groundbreaking research. Every day in the lab is different and there is always some new data to analyze and ideas to synthesize and always working on developing new hypotheses and testing and refining them. Although at times frustrating, it is always exciting.

I was promoted to Research Investigator while still in Dr. Hengartner's lab – the first person at CSHL to hold that position – and remained with him until he moved back to Switzerland in 2001. At that time, I was fortunate enough to join Dr. Scott Lowe's lab where I spearheaded a mice-to-men approach to "oncogenomics;" studying cancer in humans and mouse models. Using a way of looking at copy number changes in DNA, or ROMA technology that was developed in Dr. Michael Wigler's lab, we applied that technology to identify amplicons in common between the two species and further validated two genes as bona fide oncogenes in a mouse model of liver cancer. This collaborative body of work was published in the journal Cell. Again, very exciting times! I also spearheaded the use of exome sequencing as a means of identifying relevant mutations in a rare form of leukemia. These findings have clinical diagnostic and therapeutic significance and were published in the journal Leukemia.

As Dr. Lowe moved on to MSKCC, I again was fortunate enough to be offered a position by Dr. David Tuveson to help start up his pancreatic cancer research program at CSHL. In addition to getting his new lab up and running, I was also instrumental in implementing, in collaboration with researchers in the Netherlands, a new way of examining pancreatic cancer in a 3-D culture system. This has become, in addition to the Tuveson mouse model studies, one of the experimental mainstays of his lab. 

That brings me to present time… I've decided that 2014 is the year for me to embark on my encore career. I acknowledge that I was very lucky to have had public school teachers and then college professors recognize my aptitude for science and encourage me to pursue a career in science. I believe it is now time for me to pay back to our community by getting out there and encouraging, inspiring and teaching young minds to explore science and to think about the possibilities of pursuing scientific careers. I would also like to share my extensive knowledge of genetics and molecular biological techniques to reach out to other educators to help implement current technologies into their curricula. The goals and programs that are in place at the DNALC are ideal for this purpose and I am thankful to Dave Micklos for allowing me to join the dedicated staff here.

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